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Smartphones as a vehicle for microbial contamination: A risk to healthcare?

For the exercise, the researchers analyzed the microbiomes of 26 mobile phones from healthcare staff – with some surprising results.

Anything connected to the internet -- from smartphones to power plant controllers — can be manipulated. - © AFP/File JUNG Yeon-Je
Anything connected to the internet -- from smartphones to power plant controllers — can be manipulated. - © AFP/File JUNG Yeon-Je

Microbiologists have found that mobile phones are notorious for harboring microbes. The recent research indicates the extent of the microbial population (or the microbiome of the smartphone) in terms of the sheer abundance and broad spectrum of organisms that are present.

Notably, smartphones exposed to all sorts of community environments will harbour diverse microbes from the user’s hands. Some of these organisms can pose risks to patients who are immunocompromised.

In one sense, the mobile device has become the ‘third hand’ of many. Mobile devices are touched by the hands of their users thousands of times a day, even while in bathrooms, and they are rarely subjected to cleaning or disinfection.

The more immediate concern stemming from the research relates to the use of mobile phones in important areas where infection control is paramount. This includes the use of smartphones in healthcare, where measures should be in place to reduce the dissemination of microbes, especially with pathogens.

The new study set out to assess the diversity in microbial genetic signatures on mobile phones used in hospital settings. The study was run by Dr. Matthew Olsen of Bond University.

For the exercise, the researchers analyzed the microbiomes of 26 mobile phones from healthcare staff. The analyses of the sequence data was conducted using the CosmosID-HUB, which is designed for the analysis of complex metagenomic data.

The analysis revealed some 11,259 organisms isolated from the 26 phones. There were additionally 2,096 genes coding for antibiotic resistance and virulence factors. The metagenomic analysis revealed the presence of 134 different (distinct) antibiotic resistance gene.

The microorganisms present included bacteria, fungi, protists, viruses, and bacteriophages. With the organisms captured, clinically relevant species were found, and these included the common bacteria responsible for nosocomial diseases.

Every smartphone in the study recovered organisms of concern: Enterobacteriaceae, Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Acinetobacter baumannii, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Enterococcus faecalis/E. faecium organisms. The organisms form the so-termed ESKAPE grouping, formed of six nosocomial pathogens that exhibit multidrug resistance and virulence and hence which pose risks within the healthcare setting.

The research is published in the form of a white paper and it is is titled “High Throughput Metagenomic Analysis Exposes Mobile Phones as Potentially Hazardous Microbial Platforms Warranting Robust Public Health and Biosecurity Protocols”.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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